Borderline Views: Israel’s elections and the Joint Arab List

The general decrease in participation rates which have affected all of Israel’s society during the past decade has been felt strongest within the Arab sector.

A WOMAN walks past campaign posters for the Arab-led Hadash party in the Israeli-Arab city of Umm al-Fahm (photo credit: REUTERS)
A WOMAN walks past campaign posters for the Arab-led Hadash party in the Israeli-Arab city of Umm al-Fahm
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If the Zionist Union ends up as the largest party at the elections, there is no certainty it will be asked by President Reuven Rivlin to form the next government. He will have to be convinced that it has the best opportunity to put together a coalition government with a minimum of 61 seats which will ensure them a Knesset majority.
The current polls suggest that while it is a close race between Labor leader Isaac Herzog and Benjamin Netanyahu, the potential for another right-wing coalition, taking into account the expected preferences of satellite parties that will prefer to support Netanyahu, is greater than that of a center- left coalition. The president is not obligated to call upon the leader of the largest party if he believes that another party has a better chance of putting a majority coalition together. Ask Tzipi Livni, she knows all about it.
A major question will concern the willingness of Herzog to invite the Joint Arab List to be a full member of his coalition. In the past, all Israeli governments, including those of a left-wing persuasion, have never been prepared to fully incorporate the Arab parties, not least because it would necessitate them being invited to sit around the Cabinet table and becoming members of Knesset committees which would deal with sensitive security matters. To ask them to be full members of the government and to take on senior portfolios, but to opt out of security and defense related issues is an insult which no Arab party leader would be prepared to agree.
At the most they have backed coalition governments from outside, supporting their legislation and preventing an alternative right-of-center coalition from being formed.
But never have they been full partners in an Israeli government, and this raises difficult questions concerning the nature of Israeli democracy as it relates to the status and rights of the Arab-Palestinian minority.
But this time round, the question of Arab incorporation will be even more sensitive than in the past. Contrary to expectations, the increase in the electoral threshold from two percent to 3.25% has resulted in the unification of all four small Arab parties into a single large party. The party leaders understood that were they to remain separate from each other, they faced the real danger that none of them would pass the threshold and that they could end up with no seats at all in the Knesset – something which some of the right-wing proposers of the higher threshold had hoped would happen, and the reason why the Arab parties were the most vociferous opponents of the move.
In all other respects the change is a good one. A threshold of 3.25% is still not particularly high when compared to many other Western democracies. The fact that the smallest possible party in the Knesset will now have a minimum of four seats is essentially a good thing. It forces sectoral parties to unite around the bigger issues which they have in common, rather than to splinter and fragment over the minor issues which divide them.
A 5% threshold would probably require most of the ultra-Orthodox parties, or pro-settlement right-wing parties, to undergo a similar process to that experienced by the Arab parties. This would result in a Knesset of six or seven parties, each of which would have a larger number of seats, but without forsaking the diverse sectoral interests within Israeli society (religious, Arab, right- and left-wing). While Israel is not suited to a two-party system a la the US or UK, neither does it require a multitude of small parties, the differences between which are often difficult to discern.
Not only will Herzog face this dilemma of who to invite to join a coalition, but so too will President Rivlin if the only way Herzog could put a governing coalition together is by inviting the Arab parties to be part of the government. On the one hand, Rivlin’s personal views on the Israel-Palestine conflict are clearly right-wing – he voted against the Oslo Accords. But equally, both as Speaker of the Knesset and since taking office as president, Rivlin has done himself a great deal of credit by focusing strongly on the democratic and civilian rights of the country’s Arab population – a position which has brought him no little critique from the Right. How will he deal with this dilemma if he has to make such a decision, taking into account also that there is no love lost between him and Netanyahu, given the latter’s blatant attempts to prevent him from becoming president in the first place.
The Arab voters will have a key role to play in highlighting this dilemma. The general decrease in participation rates which have affected all of Israel’s society during the past decade has been felt strongest within the Arab sector. Since Ehud Barak was leader of the Labor Party, Arab participation in the elections has consistently decreased due to a feeling of alienation and disengagement from Israeli Jewish society and a feeling that the Labor Party had betrayed them. Also, almost no Arab citizens vote for Zionist or Jewish parties any longer, as many did in the past. They either vote for Arab parties or stay away from the polling booth altogether.
The single united party provides a new opportunity for the country’s Arab citizens to fully exercise their voting power. A return to high participation (over 90%), all of it for the single united party, could potentially increase their total number of seats to as many as 14 or even 15, and this would take the Jewish-Arab political dilemma and the nature of Israel’s democracy to a heightened level of sensitivity.
But equally it could place the Arab party in a dilemma. Even if invited, they could decide not to be part of any government coalition as they do not wish to afford legitimacy to a country which is defined in ethnic (Jewish) terms and which, by definition, excludes them from being part of the collective ethos. Since no government, even one led by Herzog, will be able to move forward on the peace front as much as they would desire, they may opt not to be part of a government which does not automatically decree a total moratorium on all settlement activity and declare its immediate return to the negotiation table with a view to establishing a Palestinian state sooner rather than later. They may even prefer the return of another right-wing government, against which they could operate, assuming internal party discipline, as a large, vociferous and active opposition in the Knesset.
Israel’s democracy is being constantly tested.
A country where large sections of the voting public believe that God’s law takes precedence over the rule of democracy, and where another 20% of the population are automatically perceived as siding with the country’s enemies as a sort of fifth column, make the democracy much more difficult to manage and uphold than in most other Western societies. In the light of the increased election threshold at the forthcoming elections, the country’s democracy will be put under even greater scrutiny and will be judged, both internally and externally, according to the way that Israel’s leaders relate to the electoral power of the Arab-Palestinian minority.
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.